Fabled Italian film star Claudia Cardinale has been the muse of such filmmakers as Luchino Visconti. Over the past six decades, she’s worked with such master directors as Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone and Werner Herzog.
But when she began her career as a teenager, Cardinale voice was considered too husky, so it was dubbed for her early films. There were other problems as well.
Though her parents were Italian, she was born and grew up in Tunisia, then a protectorate of France. “My first language was French,” Cardinale said. So when she tried to speak Italian, her strong French accent proved to be a distraction.
In fact, it wasn’t until she made Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning 1963 masterpiece “8 ½” that international audiences heard her unique throaty voice.
And that husky voice is still very strong, and even youthful, as is the 80-year-old actress. Cardinale is still stunning and effusive, laughing easily during an interview in Beverly Hills accompanied by her lookalike daughter, also named Claudia.
She was in town recently — her home is in Paris — for the recent Filming Italy Festival where she was presented with a career achievement award by the festival’s artistic director Tiziana Rocca. The festival screened the 1964 Blake Edwards’ comedy classic “The Pink Panther,” which also starred Peter Sellers, David Niven and Robert Wagner.
She has fond memories of that film: “David Niven, when he saw me, said, ‘Claudia, [besides] spaghetti, you’re the best invention of Italy,” she said, laughing.
Cardinale has won numerous awards including the Career Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice Film Festival. “I’ve been very lucky because I have been working with fantastic directors,” she said.
She became an international sex symbol in such films as 1958’s “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” But as her career progressed, Cardinale transformed into a serious actress under the guidance of Visconti in 1960’s “Rocco and His Brothers,” 1963’s “The Leopard,” 1965’s “Sandra” and 1974’s “Conversation Piece.” (All of these films will screen next month at the American Cinematheque’s Visconti retrospective at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and the Aero Theater in Santa Monica).
Cardinale noted that Fellini and Visconti were total opposites as directors. “Visconti was incredible,” she said. “I was always eating in his house with him.”
He rehearsed the film “The Leopard” as if it was a play. The lengthy ball sequence took two weeks to put together. “We thought it was like doing theater,” she said. “With Federico, it was all improvisation.”
Cardinale’s daughter recalled: “You used to always tell me that Fellini would pick you up in the morning to bring you to the set. They spoke in the car, and he kind of put her in the mood of what he wanted to be said in a scene.”
Cardinale made “The Leopard” and “8 ½” at the same time, which made life complicated for the actress.
“I had very long dark hair,” Cardinale said. “Federico Fellini wanted me to be blonde and Luchino Visconti, dark, like I am. Then, I had to change the color every two or three weeks.”
Despite her success as an actress, her personal life has had a share of heartache. Initially wanting to become a teacher, Cardinale’s life changed after winning the competition for “Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia” in 1957. Just as she started to get some minor roles, Cardinale discovered she was pregnant by a man who had no interest in the child.
Cardinale had signed a contract with Vides Cinematografica, a production company that was run by the powerful Italian producer Franco Cristaldi. He sent her to London to keep her son, Patrick, out of the eye of the Italian press.
Cristaldi, who adopted Patrick, planned to marry Cardinale but never told her of his intentions until they got to Las Vegas in 1966.
“I never got married,” she said.
“They were married in Las Vegas,” clarified her daughter. “But she didn’t have it recognized in Italy.”
During their time together, Cardinale never received any pay for her film work. Instead, the money went to Cristaldi.
“I was doing four movies a year,” she said. “I was paid almost nothing. When I met the father of Claudia, he saw that I had nothing in the bank.” (Her daughter’s father is director Pasquale Squitieri, whom Cardinale was with for more than 40 years until his death in 2017.)
Like Sophia Loren and other international actresses who came to fame in the 1950s and ‘60s, Cardinale was in demand in Hollywood, making such films as Richard Brooks’ 1966 western “The Professionals”; 1966’s “Blindfold,” with Rock Hudson, who became a good friend; and 1966’s ‘Don’t Make Waves.”
Then, she left because they wanted her to stay in Hollywood. “I’m European,” she said. “I cannot stay here.”
“The Professionals” reunited her with her “Leopard” costar Burt Lancaster. She ended up a close friend of his, but it didn’t start out that way when he arrived on the set of “The Leopard.”
“He was a very American star,” she said. “Visconti was the only master on the set.”
One day, Lancaster wanted to flex his muscles. “He was making everybody wait and doing his big star thing,” said Cardinale. Visconti wasn’t happy and made a remark to the actors and crew that filming would start after Lancaster finished his “bidet.”
But when Lancaster arrived on the set and began the scene, the actors and crew were transfixed by this “incredibly beautiful actor and Visconti fell completely under his aura.”
She described her relationship with Sergio Leone on his influential 1968 Western epic “Once Upon a Time in the West” as “fantastic.” But she noted with a laugh that there were some problems with her rather sexy love scene with Henry Fonda, who was playing a rare villain role in the spaghetti western.
“You know when I did the scene with him in [the bed]?,” Cardinale asked. “His wife was looking. It was [the] first love scene we did together, and his wife was furious.”
Cardinale loved working with Herzog on his 1982 acclaimed “Fitzcarraldo,” which starred Klaus Kinski. The actor, she said, lived up to his reputation of being “totally crazy. When we started [a scene], he took the mirror to see if the light was better on him or me.”
These days, Cardinale’s career is still going strong. “ I like to work with young directors in their first movie. It’s very important.”
“She works a lot in France,” said her daughter. “She’s shooting a telefilm now in Switzerland called ‘Bulle.’ She has a wonderful project in theater with contemporary theater writer Pierre Notte, who wrote a play for my mother.”
“It’s about a man who wants to become a woman,” Cardinale said. “He thinks that I’m Sophia Loren and he kidnaps her. It’s a very fun story.”